WHEN THE FIRST PRESSINGS of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ “Raising Sand” arrived at the studio of producer T Bone Burnett, he was astonished at the difference between the CD and the sound of the master tapes. “It was if some engineer decided ‘they couldn’t possibly want it to sound like this’ and made changes,” Burnett said, exasperation coloring the tone of his voice.
Research revealed there was no secret manipulation of the music: The master CD had been transferred to a CD-Rom with different specifications, greatly altering the airy quality of the album, one of the stand-out releases, musically and sonically, of the last 12 months.
Perplexed and disgruntled, Burnett’s reaction was quick and to the point. He codified several years of R&D work he had done with his team of engineers, creating a system titled, in Greek letters, CODE. As much as method as it is a message, he has approached engineers, labels, pressing plants, e-tailers — anyone with a role in the steps between the final mastering of an album and the product that reaches consumers.
“Standards have been thrown out the window,” said Burnett, whose activities the rest of the year include Plant-Krauss concerts, finalizing Elvis Costello’s next album, starting a Willie Nelson-Leon Russell project and producing the film “Crazy Heart.” “Who’s making the MP3s? It’s someone we don’t know. We don’t want to work for six months to get a sound and have it eliminated by one computer keystroke. When a digital copy leaves your hands anything can happen.
“Equalization was standard from 1950 to about 1980 (on vinyl test pressings). Everyone was speaking the same language. … All the developments in technology for movies have increased quality; everything in music has been done for convenience. (Most MP3s) are like watching 35mm film transferred to VHS then to DVD and then shown on a wall.”
AUDIO FIDELITY has been deemed a luxury over the last 25 years as technology has emphasized quick ‘n’ easy over artistic integrity; mixers and labels have been playing up elements seen as radio friendly as the impetus has been toward brighter, louder and denser.
Burnett’s laudable goal is to take premium audio quality off the top shelf and make it a given when a consumer purchases recorded music, regardless of the format. Music that reflects the intentions of the artists should not be limited to the few who shell out significant bucks for DVD-A systems or the fanatics who study the numbers scratched into LPs to find the best pressings of an album. Better sounding music, Burnett theorizes, should make for better business.
The first CODE release was John Mellencamp’s “Life, Love, Death and Freedom” in June; the next will be Costello’s album, slated for early 2009. CODE, and this the part that might be tough for consumers to grasp, refers to the initial standards in the recording, mixing and mastering, plus the duplication. Burnett has applied for several patents; CODE 2.0, which is being worked on, will involve automation. As much as it concerns recordings, it is also a quality assurance program, one that requires follow-through and education, much in a manner similar to the THX system in theaters.
Burnett has produced three of the best sounding albums released in the current Grammy eligibility year — “Raising Sand,” Mellencamp’s and B.B. King’s “One Kind Favor.” They are albums of distinction on multiple levels, not least of which is a sonic integrity, a successful attempt at capturing the sound of a performer in a room, which he achieves in some cases through the use of ambient noise that increases the density of the sound.
A CODE DEMONSTRATION involves A/B switching between a commercial CD version of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and then Burnett’s remastered version. The commercial CD is tinny and full of spillage from one channel to the next that leads to distortion; the Burnett version is dark, warm and well separated.
At home I did a similar A/B test and was astounded at the difference — warmth, texture, clarity — between Burnett’s remastered version of Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby?” on the “Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood” soundtrack and the Rhino “best of” release from 2000. I was sold on his theory.
“The technology is available now,” he said, noting several catalog owners have contacted him about preserving their works, “to future-proof the library for 30 to 50 years.”